SUPER PRODUCE

"If you don't have it, they'll find it somewhere else."-- Nick White, executive VP, supercenters, Wal-Mart StoresThe conventional wisdom about the face-off between supermarkets and supercenters has long been that supermarkets have a good edge because supercenter operators -- including the giant Wal-Mart Stores -- don't put much energy into selling perishables, such as produce.But the truism has been

"If you don't have it, they'll find it somewhere else."

-- Nick White, executive VP, supercenters, Wal-Mart Stores

The conventional wisdom about the face-off between supermarkets and supercenters has long been that supermarkets have a good edge because supercenter operators -- including the giant Wal-Mart Stores -- don't put much energy into selling perishables, such as produce.

But the truism has been slowly becoming less true for a while now, largely because -- as the quote above from a Wal-Mart executive shows -- at least one supercenter has found that if what consumers want isn't offered, they won't show up.

Here's a quick sampling of how the issue of perishables in supercenters has evolved:

In July 1995, SN reported that consumer interviews were beginning to show a greater satisfaction with supercenters' perishables.

In March 1996, SN reported that Wal-Mart planned to pay more attention to local produce preferences, and planned to stick with service delis because consumer preferences decreed against offering prepackaged product.

Now, in this issue of SN, it's reported that Wal-Mart is following through with a new outlook on produce by relocating it toward store front and by "stressing regionally correct, ethnically correct and economically correct merchandising," as Nick White told SN reporter Ralph Raiola. See Page 34.

In all, the most visible change concerning produce in Wal-Mart Supercenters has been the migration of the department to the front of the store. The relocation has already happened at 125 stores -- with more conversions to follow -- and has been folded into the design for all new stores.

But the more difficult challenge will be for Wal-Mart to find out -- through focus groups, the opinion of regional buyers and consumer requests -- what constitutes local produce preferences. Nick White said Wal-Mart won't add items frivolously, and that a considerable show of consumer interest will be required to spark departmental resets.

Does any of this mean Wal-Mart food outlets will become more formidable competition for supermarkets?

Clearly, that's the aim of all this activity, and to a degree it will doubtless succeed.

On the other hand, supercenters will continue to be hobbled to some extent by their size and their location away from population centers.

Meanwhile, conventional operators have inaugurated a host of competitive parries of their own, such as boosting their operational efficiencies, sharpening their mix, moving a little toward better home-meal replacement product offerings and so on.

All in all, though, this holiday period might be a good time to make another visit to a supercenter to make a fresh appraisal of produce and other perishable offerings.